Book Ends: On Practice and Portraits
by Jim Cornfield
Picture Perfect Practice Roberto Valenzuela New Riders www.newriders.com 296 pp.
June 01, 2012 —
One of my lasting personal photography lessons was acquired on a golf course with no camera involved. I was on a practice putting green, having dismal success, when I noticed a professional golfer watching me from the sidelines. “Your problem is that you’re doing it differently every time,” he told me as he took the putter from my hands. “One time you line the putt up this way,” he demonstrated, “and the next time, you do it this way.” He went on for a while reviewing my other variations, then got to the point. “You’re distracted by the process and not dealing with the problem. You’ve got to do it the same way, every time, until it’s second nature. Only then is your mind clear to deal with the situation in front of you, the one you can’t practice for.”
He could as easily have been using analogies that related directly to me. “You think a photographer has to compute what shutter speed goes with which f/stop, or fiddle with how to hold the camera every time he makes a shot? If that were the case, he’d never get a good picture.” The golfer had made his point and his lesson never left me.
In some ways, Picture Perfect Practice by Roberto Valenzuela (excerpted in the May issue of Rangefinder) deals with the same concept. Valenzuela takes my golf pro’s rule beyond technique and into the photographic realm of systemizing perception. He’s developed a formal protocol for analyzing and adjusting the details of a shooting situation, and, as the title suggests, his system requires doing it repeatedly until it’s second nature.
Where the Devil Lives
Details—unlike putting—are not half the game in photography; they’re everything. Valenzuela’s rules are mostly aimed at the ones you might encounter in a wedding shoot—his personal specialty—but they easily apply to environmental portraits and a few purely journalistic scenarios as well. Without going into the book’s system by the numbers, the crux of these details is often buried among the subtlest visual nuances that can both define and refine a photograph—details juxtaposed by garment colors; light reflected off an adjacent wall near your subject; interactions between the body language of two subjects—the placement of a hand on a hip, the position of fingers.
They also comprise the larger dynamics of a picture: symmetry, balance, framing and movement. The issues Valenzuela tackles in this book are illustrated with his own samples—before and after shots, some with similar variations on the same theme—plus graphics and superimposed diagrams. And the final chapters bring it all together: Part 4 of this well-paced, beautifully illustrated tutorial includes a formalized scheme for practicing with the perceptual tools outlined in the book’s preceding pages.
Practice, Practice, Practice
It was no surprise for me to learn that Valenzuela draws much of the impulse for this system from his former career as a classical guitarist. Probably nobody in the world would have a better fix on how profoundly a mistake—or an overlooked detail—can resonate in a solo performance before a hushed audience. And appropriately, nobody knows better the well-used maxim for success that there’s only one sure way to get to Carnegie Hall.
Defining a Brand with Available Light
The clarity and organization of Picture Perfect Practice suggests the possibility of a new rule for photographic publishing: any book purporting to be a how-to title, especially where lighting or technical points are concerned, should include wide-angle setup shots, before-and-after samples and diagrams that demonstrate, say, the relationship of subject to background, or the placement of light sources. Details like using naturally reflective surfaces to open shadows, modulate highlights or control an annoying tangency or parallel shape speak volumes to photographers who scrutinize beautiful images far differently than most other viewers.
The lack of such visual aids might just be the only significant liability of an otherwise sparkly new guide for wedding and portrait shooters, The Luminous Portrait: Capture the Beauty of Natural Light for Glowing, Flattering Portraits, by seasoned photographer Elizabeth Messina. (For an excerpt, see Rangefinder’s April 2012 issue).
Messina’s aptitude for finding beautiful swatches of available light, indoors and out, and the distinctively bright, open (“luminous”) look of her images are the strong suits of yet another recent release from trusty Amphoto Books.
Lighting diagrams lacking, Messina’s enthusiastic text and detailed captions are nonetheless useful and instructive. Her fondness for indirect sunlight, and the technique of skewing her camera settings toward open shadows and subtle overexposure in highlight areas are terrific tools for creating the airy, romantic mood impressions that distinguish her work. These nuances can easily spell the difference between conventional, lackluster imagery and the glossy wedding or glamour shots, or warm-and-fuzzy family portraiture that define a standout brand in the competitive and ever-more-congested photographic marketplace.
Branding seems to be Messina’s métier. Despite its subtitle, The Luminous Portrait is more than just a handbook on available light photography. Messina loads every chapter with her inspirational style of advice on all the ingredients that go into a successful wedding/portrait operation—from pre-visualizing images to the personal resonance between shooter and subject, to props, wardrobe and setting—all the way to an array of tips on the art of establishing a viable business in a craft where it isn’t always easy to do.
Southern California-based writer and commercial photographer Jim Cornfield (www.jimcornfield.net) is Rangefinder’s resident book critic and contributing writer.
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